Published on 2012/09/21

Universities and Continuing Industry Education: Making an Impact is Key

If a higher education institution decides to deliver industry education, it should be for the opportunity to be recognized as industry experts and the chance to influence day-to-day operations of businesses. Increasing revenue should be an afterthought and often will not happen in the short term.

In this time of constrained resources, many universities are considering industry education offerings as a way to capture a share of the estimated $60BN annual adult education audience. After all, with an HD camera and video editing software, couldn’t any faculty member capture content today and publish tomorrow.

While it is certainly possible to create courses quickly, generating revenue is perhaps the least important motivation behind delivering industry education. To create a sustainable industry education operation that is consistent with a university’s brand, there are other important motivators that will ensure the effort will be productive over the long term. The Stanford School of Engineering’s industry education was created for a variety of reasons.

The opportunity to generate revenue often is not the motivator for faculty. Instead, disseminating knowledge, making an impact in the field, and being recognized as expert are usually stronger motivators than money. Creating a successful extended education offering in the market takes time and effort, and requires patience.

At the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD)—the extended education unit of Stanford’s School of Engineering—we recognize that it could take years to achieve a financial return from a new addition to our portfolio. This is no different than any typical investment return horizon. One Stanford program took years, and several trial runs, to garner market interest. Faculty continued to participate in what initially seemed like an unsuccessful effort because they recognized and understood that generating interest would take time. They made a commitment to continue because they wanted to make an industry impact.

However, not all faculty are interested in industry education. In the academic world, faculty are hired to conduct research, publish articles, manage their graduate students, and advance their respective disciplines. Often, extended education is viewed as a distraction to these primary activities. An important corollary to remember: not all faculty who are interested in teaching to industry have relevant content. Extended education units, with university support, have to walk a fine line to identify and develop programs with potential for success.Fortunately, many faculty are interested in industry education and have research which is relevant and valued by the market. Ideally, the faculty or teaching team would have a unique approach or original insights that would advance the discipline and also be attractive to individuals or corporations. This would reduce competition and increase the likelihood of maintaining an advantage over the long term. It also increases the chance of attracting and retaining students. For example, when SCPD collaborated with faculty to create the Stanford Advanced Project Management program, a professional certificate which connects strategy and action, one of the key faculty drivers was how the program could have an impact on advancing the knowledge and careers of project and program managers. Over the course of 13 years, more than 4,000 professionals have earned the credential of Stanford Certified Project Manager.

There is another important lesson for industry education which can helps make an impact for the university and for prospective students; SCPD frequently groups courses to create certificates or paths of learning. This has a number of benefits. First, a certificate program is often much stronger, because the certificate perspective demands that faculty engage with others and think more holistically about the program content. Second, students benefit, because they can receive a credential from the university. Finally, cohesive content and student value results in a stronger financial gain; it is much easier to sell a certificate than a single course. Once a program has a solid track record, a crowning mark of success is its influence on an industry. This again requires universities to take the long view. For example, the adoption of the Stanford Advanced Project Management certificate program has made an impact with numerous corporations. Over the life of the program, participants, many of whom are actively engaged in social media, share experiences and best practices about their organization’s connections between projects, programs and strategy execution. The university’s potential to be viewed as a leader in this particular discipline starts to seed research, which in turn helps faculty continue to advance the discipline.

There are a number of reasons an institution should consider developing and delivering an industry education program. Aside from becoming recognized as an educational leader in the workforce, universities have the opportunity to provide professionals with pathways to new certifications and make an impact on individuals’ careers and the organizations they work for. If universities can harness faculty interest and distinct intellectual strength to an interested corporate market, not only will the university make an impact, but also funds will be generated to support the mission of the university. However, if experience is any guide, financial returns typically come long after the initial investment, so focusing on revenue as the primary motivation for developing industry education is missing the real potential.?


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Readers Comments

Phil Gunnarson 2012/09/21 at 10:36 am

I can appreciate the value of being recognized as an industry expert, but I think the greatest value of entering learning partnerships is the fact that, as academics, we can gain the opportunity to see if our theoretical approaches work in the real world.

More importantly, if they don’t (or even if they mostly do), we can tweak what we teach to ensure that we begin to -have- that real-world impact.

I think this strengthens the institution as a whole, as this knowledge would transplant itself into the instruction that we do outside the corporate training world and we can provide our students with more real-world-relevant learning.

    Paul Marca 2012/09/25 at 3:25 pm


    Thanks for your great comment; you’ve captured our philosophy of the connection between faculty and industry and the value to the institution very well! Our organization tries to serve to bridge faculty and industry.

Ryan Loche 2012/09/22 at 8:08 pm

The program you reference that took years to gain popularity; were there any significant changes made to the program itself or to the marketing strategy that led to its eventual popularity? Or did it just take that long to build “buzz” that led more professionals to enroll?

    Paul Marca 2012/09/25 at 3:12 pm


    There is no clear answer save to say perhaps our marketing improved AND the program gained popularity. The program survived and grew despite two significant downturns. Along the way, there was much change in marketing approaches, where we changed from a print-heavy approach to our current emphasis on search engine marketing and optimization. The key was the great content we created, driven by our faculty, supported by industry partners and validated by the students who were taking the courses. Students were using the content and achieving success..and getting promoted!

      Ryan Loche 2012/09/27 at 10:29 pm

      Interesting to see programs that build steam over time. I’m also sure word of mouth helped – we’re trying to find ways to inspire our clients to “tell a friend” as it were – did you use this method at all?

        Paul Marca 2012/09/28 at 10:42 am


        We’ve tried this, as part of a broad and diversified marketing strategy. Here’s an example: We have a strong graduate program, and every year we have an in person orientation with a nice reception. We always encourage the 100 or so who attend to ‘bring a friend’ to encourage broader participation. We get some bits.

        Our most successful marketing tool has been our free webinar series, where we can track first time registrations to that free offering to paid enrollments. The numbers are quite compelling.

          Ryan Loche 2012/09/30 at 9:27 pm

          The webinar approach sounds like a great idea; I’m guessing the content leads into topics that are covered in programs and courses that require enrollment. That’s really clever!

          Thanks so much for sharing Paul, this has been really enlightening.

Cheryl Smith 2012/09/24 at 4:32 pm

Thanks for writing this Paul – really interesting perspective and it’s nice to see benefits other than cashflow highlighted.

One question: how long did it take for the cash to begin flowing, as it were?

    Paul Marca 2012/09/25 at 3:19 pm


    We began the program in September of 1999 generating revenues immediately. The program did not turn cash positive for each of three modes (on campus, online and at company sites) until 2001-2 fiscal. Interestingly, our online version of the program, which began in June of 2000, began generating positive cash flow after expenses about a year later. There were many skeptics about our approach but hindsight has proven we got some things correct!

Marlene Brauer 2012/09/24 at 5:58 pm

I think this is a lesson everyone in the continuing education industry needs to learn and remember: just because returns are not immediate doesn’t mean they are impossible.

We all need a little more patience when it comes to new programs, I think our business-mindedness sometimes leads us to press the panic button too early… and then we all lose

Paul Marca 2012/09/25 at 3:21 pm

Great comment Marlene! Too often the ‘quarterly’ financials perspective so prevalent in our society tend to drive decisions instead of considering the customer and the potential impact which might be created!

Chris Proulx 2012/10/11 at 2:56 pm

Like you, at eCornell, we have also had some certificate programs take time to gain traction the corporate education market. We have found that sometimes a small tweak to the curriculum to better align with the competency needs of the audience can be pay huge dividends. We have also found that having strong client case studies and testimonials that speak to impact can help a program gain traction because they can hear from peers how a particular program has had in impact in their organization. Thanks for a great article.

-Chris Proulx
CEO, eCornell

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